Old Abe is everywhere. TV specials, conferences, books, pins, figurines, and other Lincolnalia celebrate the Illinois Railsplitter's Big 2-0-0. Obama is reading Lincoln. His administration is compared to Lincoln's "team of rivals." In speeches, Obama praises Lincoln as the great unifier of the nation during its greatest crisis.
The problem is, the real Lincoln gets lost in the hoopla. Actually, Lincoln would not have supported an Obama presidency. Though Lincoln opposed slavery, he thought there were racial differences between whites and African Americans that would prevent them from living on equal terms in America. He believed that blacks should shipped out of the country, to Central America or elsewhere. "What I would most desire," he said, "would be the separation of the black and white races." If they did remain here, he said, they should not be on equal terms with whites. "I am not in favor of negro citizenship," he declared in 1858. He explained, "I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, not of qualifying them to hold office, not to intermarry with white people." Before the Civil War, he predicted that it would take a very long time for slavery to disappear--at least 100 years, he said. (Imagine African Americans being held in slavery until the 1950s!)
He initially saw the Civil War as a struggle to save the American Union, not to free the slaves. He issued the Emancipation Proclamation as a war measure. True, toward the end of the war his views became a bit more advanced. He eventually envisaged political rights for African Americans. Still, he said that only "very intelligent negroes" should be given the vote.
We might try to excuse Lincoln's views by saying that he lived in a hidebound era when racism was universal. This is only half-true. Yes, unfortunately, most white Americans back then were racists; Lincoln absorbed the general prejudice. But there were a few visionaries before the Civil War--the abolitionists Wendell Phillips, Lydia Maria Child, and John Brown stand out--who had no racial bigotry and who thought blacks should be integrated into mainstream society. They considered Lincoln and his fellow Republicans backward on race and slavery. Lincoln, for his part, saw the abolitionists as radical fanatics.
It's time for us to remember history's hidden heroes--those who believed in equal rights for everyone, regardless of ethnicity or gender. Lincoln? Let the celebration go on. He did his part by leading the North to victory without letting the Union unravel. But let's not forget those forward-looking abolitionists of his day who, unlike him, would have voted for Obama.
David S. Reynolds is the author, most recently, of Waking Giant: America in the Age of Jackson.